The ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission project is preparing for its next close flyby of Mercury on June 19. It will be about 236 km above the planet’s surface at that time.
Solar Electric Operations for BepiColombo Third’s FlyBy
This is the third of six flybys that ESA’s spacecraft control team is leading BepiColombo mission through at Mercury to help it get used to the planet’s gravity.
The flybys and more than 15,000 hours of complicated solar electric propulsion operations are needed to support the spaceship’s fight against the vast gravitational pull of our Sun.
So, that it can lose enough energy to be pulled into Mercury’s orbit in 2025.
When will BepiColombo Mission Pass Through the Mercury?
On Monday, the pass will be at its closest at 19:34 UTC (21:34 CEST). BepiColombo mission will approach Mercury from the night side.
So, the spacecraft’s cameras will capture the most exciting views of the planet’s surface about 13 minutes later. On June 20, the first pictures are likely to be made public.
Mercury’s Gravity for Passing of BepiColombo
The main reason for the pass is to use Mercury’s gravity to guide BepiColombo mission through the inner Solar System.
It will also allow scientists to take pictures and fine-tune how their instruments work before the primary mission starts.
BepiColombo Mission Used Nine Flybys
The mission was sent into space in October 2018 by an Ariane 5 from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou.
The mission uses nine flybys of planets to get into orbit around Mercury: one at Earth, two at Venus, and six at Mercury.
What are Thrust Arcs While Passing by Mercury?
After this flyby, the mission will start a challenging part of its trip to Mercury. It will have to use more solar electric power, called “thrust arcs,” to keep stopping against the Sun’s massive gravitational pull.
These thrust arcs can last anywhere from a few days to two months. The longer arcs are broken up occasionally to improve guidance and maneuvering.
Lets’ Dive into the Background Information of the Operations on Mercury
Mercury is the least-explored complex planet in the Solar System, and getting there is one of the main reasons why. As BepiColombo mission gets closer to the Sun, the Sun’s intense gravity pulls the spaceship toward it faster and faster.
Gravity-assisted flybys are an excellent way to change direction with little fuel use, but they are challenging.
Flight controllers are ready to guide BepiColombo mission to pass Mercury at the proper distance, speed, and angle.
All of this was figured out years ago, but on the day of the event, it has to be as close to perfect as possible.
Frank Budnik, an ESA expert on flight dynamics, said:
“When BepiColombo starts to feel the pull of Mercury’s gravity, it will be moving at a speed of 3.6 km/s relative to the planet. “That’s just over half the speed at which it came close to Mercury during the last two flybys,”
“This is precisely what these kinds of events are for. Our spaceship started with much more energy than it needed because it took off from Earth and circled the Sun like Earth. We’re using the gravity of Earth, Venus, and Mercury to slow down so Mercury can catch us.”
Fixing of Some Operations in BepiColombo’s Orbit
On May 19, teams at mission control did the mission’s most significant chemical propulsion maneuver.
The goal was to fix the mistakes in BepiColombo’s mission’s orbit that had been made when its thrusters stopped working during the slow electric propulsion arc that happened a month and a half before.
Standard operations include correction maneuvers on the way to a pass. This one is necessary for BepiColombo to be 24,000 km away from Mercury and on the wrong side of the planet.
Keen Observations to Pass the Track of BepiColombo Mission
To be safe and ensure the mission wouldn’t end up on a crash course with Mercury, the latest maneuver was made so that BepiColombo would pass the brutal planet at a slightly higher altitude than needed.
The extra cushion was a good bet, and it made up for the mistakes as the spaceship traveled over millions of kilometers. One week before the flyby. It is now thought that BepiColombo will pass over the planet’s surface at a height of 236 km (+/- 5 km).
Dependence of Mercury’s Gravity for BepiColombo’s Mission Speed
At the time of closest approach, Mercury’s gravity will have sped up BepiColombo to 5.4 km/s relative to the planet.
Still, the flyby will slow the spaceship down relative to the Sun by 0.8 km/s and change its direction by 2.6 degrees.
Santa Martinez Sanmartin, who is in charge of the BepiColombo mission project for ESA, said:
“This is the first time that the complicated solar electric propulsion method is being used to get a spacecraft to Mercury, and it will be a big challenge for the rest of the cruise phase,”
We’ve already changed our operations plan so that we can talk to our ground stations more often. This lets us fix problems with our thrusters faster and helps us figure out where we are in space better. And all of this is done with contact delays of more than ten minutes because it takes light signals from Earth to the spaceship so long to get there”
The science and art of flight mechanics are both involved.
Orbits, maneuvers, and flybys are all planned out years in advance, but spaceships are not perfect mathematical objects.
This is why teams always err on the side of caution and plan for multiple maneuvers to fine-tune and fix the actual path of a spaceship.
Significant Instruments for the Samples During Mission of BepiColombo Mission
Even though many instruments were turned on during the cruise phase, some will also be turned on during the flyby, giving us another sneak peek at the science that will be done during the primary mission.
Instruments that measure magnetic fields, plasma, and particles will take samples of the surroundings before, during, and after the closest contact.
This will be the first time the BepiColombo Laser Altimeter (BELA) and Mercury Orbiter Radio-science Experiment (MORE) will be turned on.
However, BELA will only be turned on to test its functionality. BELA will measure the shape of Mercury’s surface once it is in orbit around the planet, and MORE will look into Mercury’s gravity field and core.
Johannes Benkhoff, who works on the BepiColombo mission for ESA said,
“Collecting data during flybys is a great way for the science teams to make sure their instruments are working properly before the main mission,”
“It also gives a unique chance to compare data received by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft during its journey to Mercury from 2011 to 2015 from places around the planet that aren’t usually reachable from orbit. We are very happy that data from our earlier flybys have already been released and have led to new scientific results. This makes us even more excited to get into orbit!”
When BepiColombo mission gets to Mercury in December 2025.
The ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) will split from the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) and go into orbits around the planet that are different from each other.
BepiColombo Mission Real Images During Flybys
The primary research camera is covered until the spacecraft sections split apart, but BepiColombo’s monitoring cameras take pictures during flybys.
BepiColombo will be in Mercury’s shadow when it gets the closest.
The spaceship will be able to see the part of the planet lit up about 13 minutes later when BepiColombo is about 1840 km away.
That means no pictures won’t be lit up from the closest approach. The most compelling images of Mercury’s surface will be taken between 13 and 23 minutes after the spacecraft gets close to the planet.
Resolutions of Pictures Taken by BepiColombo Mission
The cameras can take 1024 x 1024 pixel pictures in black and white. Because of where they are on the spaceship, they also get pictures of one of the MTM’s solar panels and the MPO’s antennas in the foreground. As BepiColombo goes by Mercury, the planet will move from the top right to the bottom left of the M-CAM 3 pictures.
The first pictures will be sent back to Earth a few hours after the closest approach, and they should be available to the public by the afternoon of June 20. The nearest pictures should show many interesting natural features, like big holes, volcanic terrain, and tectonic terrain.The pictures will also be published in the ESA’s Planetary Science Archive in the coming days.